A History of Grantham

By Tim Lambert

Early Grantham

Grantham began as an Anglo-Saxon village. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘ham’ meant village. The ‘Grant’ probably comes from somebody’s name. Maybe it was Granta’s ham. Anyway by the 11th century, the village of Grantham grew into a market town for the surrounding villages. (In those days there were no shops so if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market).

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Grantham probably had a population of around 1,000. To us, it would seem tiny but settlements were very small in those days. Later in the Middle Ages, the population of Grantham may have risen to about 1,200. By the standards of the time, Grantham was quite an important market town.

In the 9th century, the Danes conquered Eastern England and they gave Grantham parts of some of its street names. The ending ‘gate’ has nothing to do with gates in a wall. It is a corruption of the Danish word ‘gata’, which meant street or way.

In Medieval Grantham the most important industry was wool. (At that time wool was a very important industry and England’s greatest export). After it was woven wool was fulled. That means people called ‘walkers’ trod the wool in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. They gave Walkergate its name.

There was also a leather industry in Grantham. You would also find the same craftsmen you had in any Medieval town such as butchers, bakers, vintners, blacksmiths, and carpenters.

Furthermore, Grantham was on a main road between the North and South of England and so benefited from the travelers who stopped in the town and spent money there. The Church was very important in the Middle Ages. Even today the 13th-century church of St Wulfram and its 281-foot tall spire dominates Grantham. In 1598 St Wulfram’s gained a chained library. (It was normal to chain books to shelves in those days because books were so expensive!).

As well as the parish church in the Middle Ages there were also friars in Grantham. In the Middle Ages, friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In the 13th century, Franciscan friars arrived in Grantham. They were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. Early in the 14th century, the friars built a conduit into Grantham. It is believed they allowed the townspeople to use it.

In the Middle Ages, the church provided the only ‘hospitals’. In Grantham, there was a ‘hospital’ for lepers dedicated to St Leonard. (Really it was just a hostel where they could live). It gave Spitalgate its name.

In the 17th century, the wool industry shifted to Yorkshire. However, Grantham continued to be an important and prosperous market town. In the early 18th century visitors were impressed by its size and wealth.

In 1642 Isaac Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, near Grantham. He attended King’s School in Grantham.

In 1797 a canal was built to Grantham.

Modern Grantham

In 1801 the population of Grantham was almost 4,300. To us, it would seem no more than a village but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. It grew rapidly. By 1851 Grantham had a population of almost 11,000. By the end of the 19th century, the population of Grantham was about 17,000.

In the 18th century and early 19th century, Grantham was an important stage-coaching town because of its position on a main road running north to south. However, all that changed as railways spread across Britain and the great age of stagecoach came to an end.

The railway reached Grantham in 1850 and it provided a great boost for the town’s industries. In the 19th century, Grantham became an engineering town. Agricultural machinery was made in Grantham and there were several ironworks in the town.

Meanwhile, there were several improvements to Grantham. Firstly Grantham gained gas light in 1832. In 1849 a waterworks company was formed. The first cemetery in Grantham opened in 1858. Grantham Town Hall was built in 1869 and a hospital was founded in 1874.

In the 20th century, Grantham continued to grow rapidly. In the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built. Many more were built in Grantham after 1945. Many private houses were also built in Grantham. n Two famous people were born in Grantham in the 20th century. Nicholas Parsons was born there in 1923. Margaret Thatcher was born in Grantham in 1925.

In the 20th century, engineering continued to be the main industry in Grantham. It suffered severely during the depression of the early 1930s but recovered at the end of the decade. From 1938 armaments were made in Grantham, which made it a target for German bombing during the Second World War. Some 70 people from Grantham were killed by bombs.

But after 1945 Grantham prospered again. However today the most important industry in Grantham is food processing. Grantham also became quieter after a bypass was built in 1960 but it remains an important local shopping centre. Isaac Newton Shopping Centre opened in 1984. The George Shopping Centre was built in 1991.

In 2023 the population of Grantham was 45,000.